These rivals are located outside the Northeast and the Midwest, where the nation's first great fortunes began to build great public museums in the late 19th century. The Kimbell and the Getty got underway as ambitious public collections only with the deaths of their munificent benefactors, industrialist Kay Kimbell (1964) and oil baron J. Paul Getty (1976). Stately dowager museums reign from Boston to Detroit, but their upstart colleagues in Fort Worth and L.A. have barely reached middle age.
These newer, richer museums' hunger for art of substance has gotten both into some trouble, especially with ancient art. The Getty's antiquities woes are well known, with roughly four dozen outstanding Greek and Roman objects returned to the source countries from which they were looted. The Kimbell has had problems too — including during Potts' directorship.
An important Greek vase, an alabaster Sumerian statuette and a Roman marble torso were all questioned. The sculptures were returned to their dealer midpurchase, a public embarrassment to the museum. Only the vase, its ownership history still disputed, is in the collection.
Potts, an Oxford-trained archaeologist with a specialty in Near East antiquities, certainly has an informed eye. In 2000, he bought a beautiful 1st century BC Roman bronze head of an athlete, now thought to have been modeled on a 4th century BC Greek original by Lysippos. He's the sculptor who made Alexander the Great the most famous face in all antiquity.
Still, the Kimbell and the Getty are very different places. The Texas collection is small — fewer than 350 works, mostly Old Master European paintings, with a modest selection of ancient Greek, Roman, African, pre-Columbian, Oceanic and Asian objects. The Kimbell is a little treasure house.
The Getty is not. Its collection numbers upward of 65,000 objects.
Painting for painting, the Kimbell is superior, but the Getty can also claim many unrivaled works, like Pontormo's great mannerist portrait of a young soldier and James Ensor's "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889," the first blast of modern Expressionist art. Everyone knows it has the world's leading photographs collection, one of the great holdings in French decorative arts and a truly astounding collection of medieval manuscript paintings. The Getty Villa, where the famous "Victorious Youth" ranks among the few life-size ancient Greek bronzes to have survived, surpasses the Kimbell's antiquities.
Potts has mentioned the intriguing possibility of expanding beyond the Getty's current collecting areas, which are largely European — Poseidon to Post-Impressionism, as it were. Would launching new areas — ancient China, say, or the colonial Americas — make sense? Starting from scratch, is it possible today even to develop breadth in those areas?
Maybe now is the time to dust off a suggestion I made five years ago, when the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., decided to sell off one of the greatest Indian sculptures in America. The Getty could have bought the life-size, 10th century figure of Shiva as Brahma and, retaining title, put the magnificent sculpture on essentially permanent loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA already has a good Indian and Southeast Asian base collection, which the Getty lacks.
Museums like to emphasize collegiality, but there are many ways to accomplish it for the art public's benefit. Imagine an Indian masterpiece from the "Getty Collection at LACMA" — or of African art at the UCLA Fowler Museum, American painting at the Huntington, postwar Los Angeles art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, etc. If truly major art of any culture comes onto the market, the Getty could go after it and place it in whatever L.A. museum would be appropriate.
The object would benefit from the context of the city's existing collections. It would add luster to important museums. It would boost access to major masterpieces representing L.A.'s global diversity.
The city's existing institutions already have excellent base collections in areas outside the Getty's current scope. What they don't have is Getty-size acquisition funds. With Potts' arrival, perhaps it's time collegiality took a different, more productive turn.